French food group Danone SA said softening commodity prices, robust growth in emerging markets and the expected benefits from the acquisition of Unimilk in Russia made it confident for 2012.

The world's largest yoghurt maker, whose brands include Actimel and Activia, also kept its full-year 2011 outlook, though it reported slower sales growth in the third quarter due to sluggish dairy sales in Russia and the United States.

We stand by our full-year targets for 2011. Danone is in very good shape, with operations in Asia, Latin America and Africa/Middle East continuing to post robust growth, Chief Executive Franck Riboud said in a statement on Tuesday.

In Russia and the United States, we are working to strengthen our leading position, and our performance in western Europe remains good, he added.

Chief Financial Officer Pierre Andre Terisse told a conference call he expected fourth-quarter trends to be broadly in line with those of the third quarter.

Another reason for optimism for 2012 was that commodity prices -- notably milk and plastic -- were on a softer trend, he said.

Danone, which also makes Evian water and Milupa baby food, said it still expected to grow underlying sales by 6 to 8 percent this year, having achieved 5.9 percent growth in the third quarter, slightly above analysts' expectations of 5.6 percent.

It also reiterated its forecast for an increase of around 0.2 percentage points in its like-for-like 2011 operating margin.

Danone is kicking off the reporting season for large European food makers and will be followed by Nestle SA on October 20 and Unilever Plc/NV on November 3.


In the dairy market, difficulties in Russia and the loss of market share in the United States were largely responsible for a well-flagged sales slowdown from 8.7 percent growth in the first half.

Overall the dairy division -- which makes around 60 percent of group sales -- saw like-for-like sales growth slow to 3.5 percent in the third quarter from 5.5 percent in the second, with a 1.5 percent decline in volumes offsetting a 5 percent increase in value.

The newly-acquired Unimilk business in Russia suffered from higher milk costs and a repositioning of the business toward higher value-added milk products, which is hitting its volumes.

Danone has said it would focus on improving margins and building brands at Unimilk rather than growing volumes this year. From 2012, the integration of Unimilk will allow us to capture the growth of the Russian market, Terisse said.

Russia accounts for 11 percent of Danone's sales and is now the group's top market, on a par with France.

In the United States -- which accounts for 8 percent of group sales -- Danone faced strong growth in the Greek yoghurt segment, which has cannibalized other segments where Danone has a stronger presence.

To address that situation, Danone relaunched a Greek yoghurt over the summer under the Oikos name, whose initial results were excellent, Terisse said.

Third-quarter sales reached 4.81 billion euros, a reported rise of 10.5 percent and in line with the 4.81 billion average of estimates in a Reuters poll of analysts.

Danone's water business was boosted in the second quarter by strong demand from Japan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and by warm weather in Europe.

Third-quarter water sales grew 7.9 percent like-for-like, driven by Latin America and Asia. This was a marked slowdown from 18.9 percent growth in the second quarter and also reflected cool western European weather over the Summer.

Danone shares have lost 3.5 percent so far this year, broadly in line with European food and Beverage index <.SX3P>.

(Editing by Lionel Laurent and David Holmes)